Product Design

Companies evolve from small businesses through growth, mergers, and acquisitions into their current structure. How design is organised within a firm is a consequence of this development (Walsh et. al. 1992: 119). For example, in a small expanding firm, the design and development of new products might be the prerogative of the original founder/manager, whereas in a large transnational firm, design may be carried out in various subsidiary development centres which were established before the TNC purchased these subsidiaries.

Historically, the function of design within firms was a result of improvements introduced by people working directly with the production process; engineers and craftspeople. In the 19th century, the "U-form" structure of firms was developed. In the U-form structure, firms are divided into functional departments; finance, production, marketing and sales, quality and so on. This was a response to the expansion of firms, whereby management was devolved to each department. Starting in the chemical engineering industry in the 19th century, research and development departments were established in response to the need for autonomy from universities and other research agencies in the development of new technologies. Eventually, research and development departments were established in other industries. In engineering, the application of scientific principles and laws (for example in thermodynamics) increasingly meant that the design of many categories of products became more technologically sophisticated. As a result, design and product innovation became reliant on specialist skills and design became associated with research and development activities (Walsh et. al. 1992: 122; Kaplinsky 1994: 29).

In a study of British Industry in the 1980s, the location of design within companies was determined for a number of British and foreign owned firms operating in the UK. The results, shown in Table 3.1 below, show in per centage terms, which department or person was responsible for design and product development.

Table 3.1 Responsibility for design and development in UK and foreign owned firms in the UK
Department of person responsible % of design activities
Managing Director 24
Marketing Sales 8
R & D Dept 18
Production/engineering 2
Design/design and development 26
Outside Consultancy 4
Interdepartmental group 18

Walsh, V; Roy, R; Bruce, M. Potter S. 1992 Winning by Design: Technology, Product Design and International Competitiveness, Oxford, Blackwell: Table 4.1 p123

The table shows, that within UK firms, design is carried out within a variety of departments and by a variety of personnel. In contrast, in successful foreign owned firms operating in the UK, 55 per cent of design and development is carried out by an interdepartmental/ interdisciplinary group. The greater inter-departmental use of personnel for design was particularly marked among Japanese owned firms who also employ greater numbers of staff in research, design and development. One Japanese electronics firm employed 5,000 scientists, engineers and designers (25 per cent of its staff) whereas in UK firms, between, 3 and 5 per cent of staff were employed in these areas (higher in electronics firms) (Walsh et. al, 1992: 125). The Japanese approach to design and development is part of the new Japanese management paradigm which has being adopted by many manufacturers throughout the world.

In general, there is a great variance in the number of people employed in design and in the personnel and departments responsible for design, even in firms and industries producing the same goods. As outlined before, this is often due to the historical evolution of a firm; it is also a consequence of whether firms are market leaders or mainly copy other firms and also largely dependent on the type of product(s) being produced. Therefore the role of design in firms is extremely ambivalent, especially when compared to other activities such as marketing or finance. This means that managers of firms must be very clear about their design policy.

4.2 Management of design

In the management of design, it is critical that management defines product design and development policy. This will involve a clear understanding by management of future market trends and the identification and definition of product development goals; which products need to be developed, what competition is likely to be faced and what resources will be needed (Walsh et. al. 1992: 117).

As a consequence of the fact that design in companies is often carried out by a wide range of personnel/departments, the management of human resources for design is extremely important. The Corfield Report (regarding the UK design industry) recommended that there should be a design director on the board in manufacturing companies (Walsh et al. 1992: 130). Walsh, however, found that it is more important to have a specific individual or group within the firm made responsible for design. A second recommendation, was that all the design skills in a firm be utilised fully; whether by professional engineers and designers or by "silent designers" (See section 1.5 above). The design function of staff should be explicitly defined and staff should receive appropriate training (Walsh et. al, 1992: 136).

Finally, the management of a firm needs to decide how much of the company's finances will be spent on design. The financing of design must be carefully monitored and evaluated, since the allocation of resources to design is essentially an investment decision. (Walsh et. al, 1992: 116)

4.3 Japanese management techniques

Since the 1960s, Japanese traded goods have emerged from relative obscurity to become extremely successful in world markets. Originally, it was thought that the rapid adoption of automated technologies was responsible. However it became clear, that the development of a new production system was of primary importance in making Japanese goods more successful (Kaplinsky, 1994: 34).

The emergence of Japanese management techniques in the last two decades, has had a significant effect on how production is organised in manufacturing companies world-wide. This method of management has a profound influence on how products are designed produced and modified, since they rely on a system of "kaizen" or continuous improvement. Japanese management techniques are being increasingly adopted by American and European firms. Raphael Kaplinsky has conducted research into the diffusion of Japanese management techniques to Less Developed Countries and concluded that Japanese management techniques may be highly appropriate for developed countries (Kaplinsky, 1994: 34).

The Japanese management system is based on a replacement of the mass production system with a flexible specialisation system. The mass production system emerged as the dominant mode of production in the last century through the realisation of economies of scale through standardisation of components and processes. The system has become increasingly obsolete due to the increasing volatility of markets which increases the cost of large inventories and a greater demand for differentiated products. A further factor is that firms were traditionally seeking to reduce labour costs through the 'dumbing down' of the labour force and the introduction of automation. This was causing labour unrest, whereas in Japan the emphasis was in using labour as a resource to be maximised (Kaplinsky, 1994: 12-13).

The basis of the new Japanese paradigm is in the reduction of product inventories through the imposition of the 'Just in Time' system. The system is based on the following eight points:

  • Reducing inventories in order to 'pull' production through the factory [In contrast, in a mass production system, production is maximised in order to optimise machine use]
  • Making quality a responsibility of every worker at every stage of production - in order to reduce reworking and reduce inventories
  • Having a cellular production system rather than a linear production system
  • Reducing batch size
  • Reducing the changeover time for machinery through a flexible labour system whereby workers are given the responsibility of intervening in production and are trained in multiple tasks
  • Optimisation on a system wide basis rather than at an individual plant, worker or machine level
  • Closer co-operation between the company and its suppliers
  • The endogenisation of change: making change continuous.

A feature of Japanese management techniques is that productivity increases are only significant when all these changes are introduced, since many of the changes are interdependent and interrelated (Kaplinsky, 1994: 19 - 34).

In particular, the last point, the endogenisation of change, makes firms adopting these techniques much more inclined to focus on design and incremental product improvement. Design changes can be much more readily integrated into the production system, changes in customer/market demand can be responded to more rapidly and it is easier for staff to provide an input into the design process.

Japanese management techniques are of great significance to LDCs because unlike the transfer of conventional production systems, significant increase in productivity is achieved through a change of organisation, rather than through investment in costly machinery and capital intensive technology. Therefore, Japanese management techniques are considered to be much more technologically appropriate to more labour intensive conditions which are typical of developing country production. The techniques also have a low adoption cost, do not require foreign exchange, make firms in LDCs more world market oriented and more insulated from exogenous shocks. (Kaplinsky, 1994: 6)

In Zimbabwe, Japanese management techniques have been introduced to more than 50 manufacturing companies through the Price Waterhouse management consultancy firm which markets the organisational procedures of the Japanese manufacturing firm Kawasaki. The results in Zimbabwe were mixed, from improper implementation in some firms, to significant gains in productivity in others (Kaplinsky, 1994: 162).

4.4 The Cost of Design

Investment in Design is not a prerequisite to success for a particular company. Indeed product design requires a high investment cost for a company (Fox, 1993). Fox describes the process of design as a series of iterations which are necessary to achieve the ultimate goal of a high quality design. Therefore, by attempting to reduce the number of iterations the cost of design can be reduced. This can be achieved by for example, limiting the number of prototypes.

In general, companies can control design costs through carefully monitoring the design process and adequately documenting key findings for future design investments.

4.5 Design skills

The design of a product requires the skills of a wide variety of personnel: Mechanical Engineers, Production Engineers/Production Managers; Product Designer/Industrial Designers, Scientists, Electrical engineers, Marketing Staff and Production Personnel. Which personnel are required for the design of a particular product is dependent on the type of product and whether it is an improvement on an existing product or a new product.

According to Walsh et al (1992: 50) and Cross (1989: 16), industrial and product designers are required to have creative, analytical and technical skills including:

  • Tacit knowledge - implicit and internalised knowledge derived from experience, about the way in which systems or products operate.
  • Visual imagination - the ability to imagine objects which do not exist - new and novel mechanisms, configurations of components and product forms. Designers need to look at things in new ways in order to come up with new solutions.
  • Idea representation - the ability to communicate ideas through drawings, sketches and models.
  • Research skills - the ability to source and assimilate vast amounts of information and ascertain what is most important.
  • Communication skills - the ability to listen to a variety of different people - customers, users, management, other designers and marketing and production staff.

(Walsh et. al, 1992: 50; Cross, 1989: 16)

In addition, engineering designers will have knowledge in engineering subjects: physics mathematics, economics, materials, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, applied mechanics, Computer Aided Design, design for economic manufacture, design evaluation.

Generally, designers will also have knowledge of ergonomics, presentation techniques, economics, design process, time and project management and various computer programs. Often designers require a working knowledge of electronics in order to work with electronic engineers or incorporate electronic devices into products. A practical knowledge of production techniques and production processes such as welding, fitting, machining, woodwork/carpentry is also necessary for designers to produce products which can be feasibly produced (University of Glasgow/ Glasgow School of Art, 1992).

The Design Process